Trees snag Oakland’s first major creek daylighting project

December 20, 2012

Oakland’s first major creek daylighting project has hit a major snag after plans to remove 84 trees, a number of them coast redwoods, has raised an uproar among Dimond Park users.

The $4 million Sausal Creek Dimond Park Restoration Project would resurface 250 feet of culverted creek, a change that many residents in the area can get behind. What they object to is the city’s plans to widen a section of the creek downstream from the culvert, a process that involves cutting a number of healthy and sizable trees.

The issue has divided park users, who value the trees, from established environmental groups and city officials, who believe the project would create a better riparian habitat in the long run. Restoration projects often unleash difficult debates over how to envision landscapes that inevitably change over time. The controversy over Sausal Creek, one of Oakland’s principal waterways, is no different.

“If people had known they were going to cut big trees it would have never gotten this far,” said John Slaymaker, who leads restoration work projects at Sausal Creek and is heading up the opposition. “What exactly do people mean when they say ‘restoration?’ They have a $4 million project with major tree felling and bulldozing and they’re calling it restoration?”

But Lesley Estes, Oakland’s watershed program manager, said the city has little choice but to make changes along the creek, where houses and Cannon Road on a hill above abut eroding banks.

“There’s a real serious threat going on,” she said. “We don’t know at what point that hillside’s going to fail but it’s a pretty sure thing at some point it’s going to fail because of the condition of the creek. Sausal Creek is owned by the city. The city maintains the liability. At some point we have to address it.”

On a recent wintery morning at Dimond Park, Sausal Creek was rushing with rainwater through narrow channels overgrown with foliage, fallen trees, and in some sections of the embankment, eroding concrete. Along one side, houses perched above the steep embankment and on the other side of the creek, towering redwoods and other trees bore the red markers that signaled their removal.

“Redwoods are my favorite trees. I can’t believe they’re going to cut down the trees,” said Margo Rosa, a nearby resident who was walking a trail alongside the creek.

Sausal Creek may be a slice of the wild in an urbanized landscape, but Oakland officials say the creek, which historically flowed more than 3 miles from the Oakland hills to the San Francisco Bay, has been heavily altered over the years, especially the lower end.

What was once a wide creek with slow moving water has become a firehose because of culverts, stormwater runoff, and development along one side of the creek, said Estes.

“We can’t cure all of those things, but if we widen the stream those velocities don’t have as much impact,” said Estes.

Widening the creek basically means expanding it in the direction of the trees. A city arborist report tabulated that 22 redwoods of between 7- 38 inches in diameter would be removed in the project (10 of those redwoods are greater than 20 inches). Other trees on the list for removal are seven coast live oaks; willow; elm; a number of non-native such as plum, acacia and gums; and a few other species.

“When you go out there with all these trees being marked it is overwhelming,” said Kimra McAfee, the executive director of Friends of Sausal Creek (FOSC) and a supporter of the city project. “But when you actually walk up to the creek and see what’s there now, there’s a perspective that, wow, this isn’t a nice place from a nature value.”

McAfee says the project would create a better habitat for rainbow trout, who miraculously live and reproduce in the stream despite being blocked from the bay. FOSC’s ultimate goal is to restore the entire length of the stream to the bay. In place of the cut trees, FOSC would plant native riparian species along the creek banks. The Northern Alameda County chapter of the Sierra Club has also signed off on the project as environmentally sound.

But Slaymaker, who volunteers with FOSC despite their difference of opinion on the project, disputes many of the city’s claims. He said Sausal Creek naturally has a steep channel, as its tributaries do upstream in Dimond Canyon, and that it’s the houses that have encroached on the creek banks. He said the area is native redwood habitat  that supports a variety of species that use the treetops, including Cooper’s hawks. The oldest redwood marked for cutting is 86 years old.

City officials claim the redwood trees were planted, but Slaymaker is reminded of the history of Sausal Creek as the location of massive saw milling during the Gold Rush.

“This is exceedingly wrong because this is the first redwood forest we decimated,” Slaymaker said.

Slaymaker said he favors more concrete along the creek’s beds in sections that are unstable. And the city could remove the entire length of culvert, an additional 200 feet, in order to slow water velocities, he said. (Estes said removing the extra stretch of culvert wouldn’t solve the instability of the creek’s banks).

“I’ll be the first person with a shovel to take it out,” said Slaymaker.

Slaymaker has rounded up more than 600 signatures in opposition to the tree-cutting, and has created a Facebook page and a blog to get the word out and drum up support. The uproar has created a backlash against Friends of Sausal Creek, a small nonprofit that’s been instrumental in  restoring the watershed and propagating and planting native plants.

“It’s been really hard to have the criticism that’s directed at us because we’re supposed to be the environmental stewards,” said McAfee.

Meanwhile, opponents aiming to appeal the city’s permit approval of the tree-cutting could end up derailing the entire project — daylighting and all —  because of the timeliness in using outside sources of funding, said Estes.

“if this project is appealed and goes through full appeal process, there is a chance the project will not start this summer and could lose the funding,” said Lesley Estes, Oakland’s watershed program manager.

Saving trees and daylighting a creek — two laudable environmental goals — have never been so complicated.

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About the Author

Alison Hawkes was a Bay Nature editor from 2011-2017. Before Bay Nature she worked in journalism for more than a decade as a former newspaper reporter turned radio producer turned web editor with each rendition bringing her closer to her dream of covering environmental issues. She co-founded Way Out West, a site dedicated to covering Bay Area environmental news.

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